Senior College Football Columnist

Notre Dame's revival can be traced to arrival of humble Hawaiian Te'o

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For six weeks Brian Polian's life was pure hell -- in paradise.

For six weeks Notre Dame's special teams coordinator had what can only be described as a brutal travel schedule with the best possible destination.

In 2009, Polian was Charlie Weis' West Coast recruiter. Then only 34, the son of veteran NFL GM Bill Polian had the whole world in front of him. So why not fly halfway around the world? At the end of a hellish journey was that best possible destination that contained the best possible kid.

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Manti Te'o in Hawaii.

By now you've probably heard or read about this perfect warrior. Sports Illustrated featured him on its cover a couple of weeks ago. The Notre Dame linebacker was available on a media teleconference Wednesday that became spiritually uplifting.

No one can be criticized for how they grieve but how, it was asked, did he decide to play in the Michigan game on Sept. 22 and not attend funeral services for his girlfriend Lennay Kekua?

"I really wanted to see her," said Te'o who then recounted a promise he had made to Kekua, a leukemia victim.

"Babe," she said, "if anything happens to me, you promise that you'll still stay over there and that you'll play and that you'll honor me through the way you play."

At 12:01 ET during Notre Dame's walk-through that day Te'o quietly observed the time of the closing of her casket -- 9:01 back in California.

"She just wanted some white roses and that's all she asked for," Te'o said. "So I sent her some roses and sent her two picks along with that."

Te'o had two interceptions in Notre Dame's 13-6 victory.

This Tebow with Polynesian blood is having an All-American season that should get him the Butkus Award (best linebacker) at least, and could earn him a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Half the story this week in Chicago is the Notre Dame-Miami rivalry being renewed. The other half -- around the country -- is that Notre Dame itself has been renewed by a humble Hawaiian.

Te'o -- like Tim Tebow before him -- gives us hope that the sport can be saved. There are myriad reasons against a native Hawaiian leaving his home, his region (Southern California was the favorite) and -- in a way -- his religion to come to South Bend.

Three-and-half years ago, Polian faced all those obstacles. He was transformed by that globe-trotting recruiting march to land the five-star linebacker out of the prestigious Punahou School on Oahu – Barack Obama's high school. Over a 15-month period, Polian traveled to Hawaii 11 times. Except it wasn't that easy, or delightful.

"Everybody back in South Bend would bust my chops, 'Tough job, you get to go to Hawaii,'" Polian said.

Here's the reality as that February 2009 signing day approached: "For six weeks I'd fly out Sunday night and spend two days in L.A. recruiting. I'd fly to Honolulu on Wednesday, spend less than 24 hours and then take the red-eye back to L.A. to recruit. Then I'd take a red-eye to Cleveland to recruit a guy we were on.

"By the end of it I was absolutely punch drunk."

And ultimately, the winner. When Te'o signed with Notre Dame it was seen as a modern recruiting upset. The Irish were coming off seasons of 3-9 and 7-6. Te'o's official visit in October 2008 had been an "absolute train wreck," according to Polian.

A freak snowstorm. Te'o showed up in shorts and flip-flops. Weis made sure that the local Ruth's Chris steakhouse had fish on the menu, figuring that an islander wanted island food.

"Coach, I live in Hawaii. I eat fish all the time," Te'o said. "I want cow."

"He crushed it," Polian recalled. "It was like a 28-ounce steak."

Since then Te'o has been an athletic and spiritual beacon. He came to a Catholic stronghold in a region with a small Mormon population. He did not take the traditional two-year Mormon mission. He stayed, even though Weis, Polian and the rest of the staff that recruited him were fired after his freshman season. He stayed for 2012, his senior season, although no one could have blamed him for going pro.

"This is what we want college football to be," said Polian, now the special teams/tight ends coach at Texas A&M. "I told him when I left there, 'We're not on the same team together, but you'll have a friend and supporter in me for the rest of your life.' "

In those frantic final recruiting days in 2009, Polian felt moved to send Te'o an email. The kid wasn't taking calls. He was in a mental bunker contemplating the life-changing choice. Polian urged Manti's father Brian to show him the email. Even though Polian won't reveal the exact contents of the message it went something like this: "No matter what you choose, I'm praying for what's best for your future."

As the college football world waited, Polian knew the odds: Punahou was traditionally a Stanford feeder school. At USC Te'o could have been the next Junior Seau. At BYU, he would have been an athletic symbol for a religion. At Notre Dame, he could carve out his own identity.

Weis and his staff were as invested as they had been on any player. On one of his visits, Weis left Chicago at 10 a.m., landed at 2 p.m. Hawaii Time, watched Te'o's high school game, then hopped a flight back to South Bend. The entire trip lasted 26 hours.

"No hotel," Weis said in an email.

A Hawaiian native of Mormon faith prayed to his (favorite Manti term) "heavenly father." The answer came back: Catholic flagship.

"If it comes out we beat everybody's ass it's not going to look right," Polian said. "But did we outwork people? You betcha we outworked them for the kid.

"He did what he thought in his heart was right and it went against everything everybody was telling him."

If he had not come to Notre Dame, Te'o would never have experienced that third week of the season. On Sept. 12 both Kekua and his grandmother died within hours of each other. At that Michigan game 10 days later, thousands of Irish fans turned out waving leis as a sympathetic salute to his losses.

"Losing my girlfriend and my grandmother has strengthened by relationship with my heavenly father," Te'o said. "I've never felt so strong."

While he has been consistent through his first three seasons, his breakout as a star this season has allowed the world to know his story. Through four games, Te'o leads the Irish in tackles and is tied for the lead in interceptions.

"He sees things more so from an eternal perspective," said Alema Te'o, Manti's great uncle. "He understands, 'I am carrying a torch.'"

To understand Manti, you have to understand his culture. His is an extended family. In the Polynesian culture, family is everything. Te'o has Hawaiian, Samoan and Polynesian blood. Polian and his wife Laura visited the spring after Manti's signing. They were immediately welcomed at a family barbeque as "Uncle" Brian and "Aunt" Laura.

Uncle Alema's All-Poly Camp in Utah is one of the biggest and best non-institutional camps in the country. As an eighth grader, Manti was taking on high-school seniors. One of his biggest accomplishments coming out of high school was becoming an Eagle Scout.

"He is going to change the next generation of our family," Alema said. "All my nieces and nephews, they all pattern their approach around him. They train harder. They're focused in school. I tell them all, 'Watch your cousin as much as you can.'

"His life is a [Mormon] mission. I've learned from it."

Te'o has touched more people at the Catholic stronghold than he never could on that traditional mission. The story would be edging toward movie territory when you consider Te'o's first impression of Notre Dame was watching the legendary "Bush Push" game in 2005. It was Weis' greatest "win" with the Irish even though USC won -- to the dismay of Te'o.

"I was cheering for the other team," he said, "I didn't know anything about Notre Dame."

Now he is a symbol for it.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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